(A quick code doodle inspired by the Facebender chapter of A. K. Dewdney's excellent but out-of-print The Armchair Universe)

Sony MDR-1RBT Headphones

One of the benefits at my new company is an employee discount at the Sony store. Most stuff is 15-20% off, some things more than that, some things no discount at all. Some time during my first week I check it out. I'm looking at all the stuff that I have no need for and I notice that I can buy my old standard headphones (MDR-7506's) on there for a little cheaper than elsewhere. Good to remember.

I've always wished they made these in a bluetooth model so that I could go without the heavy, jangly cable, but it seems that no one is interested in making bluetooth headphones that actually sound good and work well. Lo and behold! Sony has a new headphone model that supposedly has the same or similar drivers as the MDR-7506's, but bluetooth! This model, MDR-1RBT, is not cheap though. $400. For this item my discount is 50%! Still, $200 is a lot for headphones so I look around for reviews.

Getting great reviews! Lots of favorable comparisons to the MDR-7506's, too. And they fold flat, which is one of the only complaints I have about the 7506's. I'm sold. I order at the end of May. They must be selling well because they were out of stock for two months.

Once they finally arrive... disappointment. :( They sound pretty good, but nowhere near the 7506's. And it wasn't the compression artifacts, either. The bass was really overbearing, to the point of muddy. Maybe they have crappy amplifiers in there? My dad said the microphone worked really well for telephone calls. But I'll be using them to listen to music 99% of the time so that doesn't make up for the so-so sound.

As far as the Bluetooth of it, it worked pretty well pairing to everything I tried (iPhone 4S, work Mac, home Mac) just so long as it was paired with the one device. Switching the pairing between the devices wasn't seamless, which I was hoping for. There were a few drop-outs, not many, but I was hoping for perfect connectivity. There was also a really annoying latency when changing tracks, volume, etc. It may be have have been my devices, or maybe it's simply unavoidable with Bluetooth. I think I could learn to live with it, but I'm going to guess that other devices don't have this problem.

It has an obnoxious blue LED that flashes every few seconds while paired which I HATE. If I'm going to use wireless over-the-ear headphones I'm already treading the dorkiness line, I don't need any more help looking like an asshole. I have an old pair of Motorola headphones that have something similar that require a special button-combo to turn the lights off, but there doesn't appear to be any way to turn this light off on the MDR-1RBT's. Having visual feedback in the "interface" of the device is nice, but a much better idea would be to discreetly put those lights on the inside of the ear cups.

They do fold flat, which is nice, but they fold so that if you put them around your neck they fold with the ear cups facing outwards/up. That's a problem for three reasons. First, the way they sit on your head means that the spring action plus the folding causes the ear cups to naturally very slightly pull backwards on your head. That's bad for comfort. Second, this tension encourages the mechanism to throw the phones off your head if you are jolted. Third, it means that when the headphones are around your neck the most sensitive part of the device and the part that directly touches your skin, the inside of the ear cups, is exposed to the elements (not to mention that it makes them stick out and press up against your neck/chin in a weird way). Having the inside of headphones hanging out in the air like that just feels wrong. Headphones-around-neck is a very common way of temporarily wearing headphones so getting the ergonomics of this right is important. If they reversed these side hinges it would be so much better. It's a simple design flaw that really hurts the ergonomics of the device.

One smart feature they did include was a direct-connect jack so that you could use the headphones without pairing. Since my platonic ideal headphones would require a direct connection for music recording, this was a great feature to include. Except they used a 2.5mm jack. WTF? Who actually puts 2.5mm connectors on things these days? They included a 2.5mm to 3.5mm (1/8") cable. What would have been much better is to have a 4-conductor 3.5mm jack that supported Apple's volume up/down & play/pause resistor signaling + microphone like my Sony earbuds do.

In the end, I realized that the flaws in the device (muddy bass sound, substandard pairing/connectivity, annoying LED, 2.5mm jack, backwards hinge) all added up to me likely never using them, so I sent them back. $200 was more than these things were worth, I can't imagine someone being satisfied them for $400. I will applaud Sony's tech support and returns process for being pretty easy and efficient, though. Maybe a future version fixes these problems but for now I'll stick with my old standard, the MDR-7506's.

One other note: I recently purchased a pair of velour ear pads to replace the dying, flaking ones I have on my 7506's... THEY ARE AMAZING. So comfortable. The original pads are very good, but even after a few hours they start to get sweaty. These velour pads are excellent. I believe that I could use them for a 16-hour recording bender without them ever being uncomfortable. And the installation is as easy as can be, just carefully pull the edge of the pad over the outer lip of the ear cup and it's securely on.

So that's my new recommendation for headphones: Don't bother with the Sony MDR-1RBT's until they do some fixes. Go for Sony MDR-7506's with Beyerdynamic velour ear pads. Amazing sound, excellent comfort, for only a little over $100.

MacBook Pro LTE

Now that all major carriers in the U.S. (and abroad?) have standardized on a single technology for 4G cellular data, will Apple produce a MacBook Pro LTE? As someone who has a pretty hefty Caltrain commute these days, I certainly hope so! Bonus points if it's multi-band so that it is carrier-neutral. On second thought, that's essential. I think most people would pass on the feature if it meant their personal laptop was tied to a specific cell provider.

Edit : Really guys? I can only assume that they had to make a choice between integrating Haswell into the Macbook Air and the Macbook Pro they made the obvious choice of the MBA, but it still sucks for those of us with ~5 year old original unibody Macbooks who are ready to upgrade. No one but the universe is listening, but FWIW I want a new Retina Macbook Pro with Haswell, LTE, and a 1T drive on the PCIe bus. That would last me another 5 years.

Meaning in Work

I recently worked with a Director of Project Management who had a saying regarding recruiting and motivating developers: "Developers want interesting problems to work on, and here at [former employer] there's no lack of interesting problems."

I had a full-body cringe every time I heard it. Besides the patronizing tone with which it was said, it's insulting because it minimizes the psychology of the creative people who were building the products. It's like saying software engineers are basically toddlers, endlessly entertained by new shiny toys. To be fair, tenacious curiosity is certainly a hallmark of engineers of all stripes and definitely a quality I seek in candidates when hiring. But to say that all it takes to keep developers happy is interesting puzzles shows an amazing ignorance of human motivation.

Around this time I had the pleasure of reading Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, pyschoanalyst and holocaust survivor. The first half of the book is a heart-breaking memoir of the author's experience suriving Auschwitz, the second half outlines his technique of "logotherapy" inspired by this experience and subsequently honed in his professional practice. Logotherapy states that the desire to find meaning or purpose in life is the primary driving force for humans. And I would have to agree. As Frankl describes, meaning can come in many forms. Defining or discovering personal meaning in life can itself be an act of surprising creativity. And there are certainly other motivations in our lives that drive our actions (Nietzsche's "power" or Freud's "pleasure"), but the desire for it all to have meant something in the end is an idea that resonates very deeply for me, and for the most intelligent, capable, and talented people I've known.

So it's no surprise that there's this article making the rounds that "The Most Innovative Employees at Google Aren’t Stanford/MIT grads with Perfect SATs". That seems intuitively obvious to me. That's not to say that there isn't a correlation with excellent performance in an academic environment and innovative talent, just that enormous creativity and academic achievement are separate phenomena arising from an individual's willpower.

For the highly creative people I've known, it's often that they want to create for a purpose. Sometimes it's a lofty goal, sometimes it's simply to enhance their little corner of the world. Harnessing this force in an honest and positive way is the true management challenge for software development. I am sure that this is true in other industries as well. If a software engineer truly comes to feel that his or her work is meaningless, and this is not uncommon given the product churn and management flailing in our industry, their talent will wither and you will fail to get innovative work from them. Put bluntly it will be a waste of money, and worse, a waste of talent and creativity. A waste of humanity. However, if they understand the meaning behind the work, even if it is defined in a very narrow and limited way, they will be able to hang their willpower on that hook and deliver what is needed.

What this means for a manager is that you had better explain your decisions in a rational and coherent way if you want people to follow your lead.

Which brings me back to the unnamed Director of Project Management's nonsense about how to keep developers happy. My belief is that developers want the same thing that everyone wants from employment besides financial gain: the opportunity to find meaning in their work. It doesn't necessarily have to be change-the-world stuff, as long as there's a concrete purpose for the effort. Sometimes developers can entertain themselves for a limited time by playing with an amusing mind puzzle. But the direction of the work will have limited accuracy relative to the business objectives and the effort will not be sustained. Entertaining your talent with fun projects is not a leadership technique. Straightforward discussion of the purpose and meaning of the work is.

In the summer of 2012 I applied to and interviewed at an intriguing startup in Palo Alto. I'm still not 100% sure what they were working on, except that it involved distributed computing and storage of some kind, they were working with Blocks in C, and they were definitely "thinking big". And the leadership of the company was something of a dream team. They had posted a fascinating challenge to their website for job candidates, which I attacked with gusto. Unfortunately, they were not interested in me. Perhaps if I had spent as much time talking about content addressable storage concepts instead of physical hardware I'd be in like Flynn.

Such is life.

But their loss is your gain: My answer to their challenge is posted here for your entertainment!

tl;dr: Disk backed by tape backed by a 11' microfiche cube. But ultimately this is a problem of institutions, not processes or technology.

"Available" in this context is a tricky word. Availability implies a system that can provide the data immediately, which brings mechanical and electrical systems into play. These systems require ongoing maintenance, and since almost none of the adults alive today will be around for the next 100 years to provide this maintenance, the stewardship of the availability of this system comes down to the institutions and processes that are entrusted with this responsibility.

100TB is not that big of a challenge. It's the 100 years part that really complicates matters. Filesystems, databases, etc.... there are many viable options, but the design of a long-living physical storage system is quite a bit harder so I'll focus my thoughts on that.

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